Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in an interview yesterday that the United States could withdraw as many as 50,000 troops by the end of the year, declaring there are enough Iraqi forces trained and ready to begin assuming control in cities throughout the country.
After the White House and Pentagon were contacted for comment, however, a senior adviser to Talabani called The Washington Post to say Talabani did not intend to suggest a specific timeline for withdrawal. "He is afraid . . . this might put the notion of a timetable on this thing," the adviser said. "The exact figure of what would be required will undeniably depend on the level of insurgency [and] the level of Iraqi capability."
In the interview, Talabani said he planned to discuss reductions in U.S. forces during a private meeting with President Bush today, and said he believed the United States could begin pulling out some troops immediately.
"We think that America has the full right to move some forces from Iraq to their country because I think we can replace them [with] our forces," Talabani said. "In my opinion, at least from 40,000 to 50,000 American troops can be [withdrawn] by the end of this year."
That assessment differs dramatically from those offered by Bush and by U.S. military commanders in Iraq.
Bush has carefully avoided setting a timetable for reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, currently about 140,000, and the Pentagon plans to maintain or slightly increase the force level in anticipation of an Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq's new constitution. White House officials say that Bush's strategy for eventually withdrawing troops hinges on Iraqis' approving the constitution and holding successful elections in December.
Dan Bartlett, a senior Bush adviser, said the president and Talabani have the same goals. "We share the same view: As Iraqis build up their capabilities to defend their country, fewer U.S. troops will be needed to complete our mission," Bartlett said. "The president will continue to work with Iraqi leaders, and base his military decisions on the advice of commanders in the field and the secretary of defense."
A senior Army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the military does not openly discuss withdrawal timelines, said bringing home as many as 50,000 U.S. troops -- or more than 35 percent of those now in Iraq -- by the end of the year is not under discussion. "Any talk of reduction has been for well after the election time frame," the official said. "Are there discussions about how to pull back and when? Sure. But certainly not that dramatically in such a short time."
Talabani's statement has the potential to put Bush in a difficult position if the troops are not pulled out by year's end, since critics are certain to ask why U.S. soldiers cannot come home when Iraq's own president says they can. The two leaders will hold a joint news conference today after their meeting.
In the interview, Talabani said Iraqi troops are prepared to assume control of security in several cities throughout southern, central and northern Iraq, despite continued violence, suicide bombings and killings. Many military experts predict a spike in insurgent attacks ahead of next month's vote.
Talabani said the number of "well-trained" Iraqi security forces stood at 60,000 and would reach 100,000 by the end of the year. All told, there about 190,000 Iraqis enlisted in the military or local security forces. "Some are well-trained, some are not so well-trained," he said. Iraqi troops have light arms, but he said they need 50 tanks and automatic weapons.
Talabani, who is Kurdish, could be influenced by the fact that the Kurds are fairly capable of defending their territory in northern Iraq and are less in need of U.S. military support, said Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Iraq.
Many Sunni Arabs oppose the draft constitution, and they are organizing in record numbers to vote against it in Sunni-dominated regions. Talabani raised the possibility of an addendum to the constitution in coming days in an effort to appease Sunni factions. "Of course, we would like to have consensus on all articles of the constitution," he said.
In the interview, Talabani said he did not want to speak critically of neighboring Syria, which the top U.S. envoy to Iraq chastised for interfering there. Many of the foreign insurgents fighting in Iraq are believed to have entered the country along the porous Syrian border. "Our patience is running out, the patience of Iraqis [is] . . . running out. The time for decision . . . has arrived for Damascus," Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at the State Department.
Commenting on the upcoming trial of ousted president Saddam Hussein, Talabani insisted that the former leader had confessed to the killings of tens of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s, an assertion denied by Hussein's attorney.
Hussein is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 19 on charges stemming from a massacre of Shiite Muslims following a failed assassination attempt on the Iraqi leader in the northern town of Dujail in 1982. Hussein allegedly retaliated for the plot by killing at least 143 people and razing much of the town.
Talabani, based on a conversation with the judge in the case, recounted a scene right out of the movie "A Few Good Men." Asked about the mass killings, Hussein sat silent, refusing to utter a word, Talabani said. But Hussein was taunted, asked if he was afraid to say he carried out such an act. Hussein said, "I am not afraid," and defiantly admitted he ordered the killings. Talabani said the judge has a video and recording of the confession.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.